Sliver of hope amid the father of all floods: There are small signs that the worst may be over for the Midwest, Rupert Cornwell writes from South St Louis
Tuesday 20 July 1993
Between 8pm and midnight on Sunday, a couple of levees broke. 'It started like a rumble in the ground, like a jet plane going by,' said a resident. 'Then the top sandbags just blew off the levee and the waters came rushing through.' And on they rushed; into the road, into the cellars, halfway up the living-room wall of the lowest-lying houses. Most people escaped easily enough, apart from one man who had to be winched by helicopter off his roof. But the Great Midwestern Flood of 93 had struck again.
Elsewhere along the hundreds of miles of battlefront, some rare successes are to be reported. On radio news station KMOX, St Louis' 24-hour monitor of the crisis, came word that drinking water was starting to return for some of the 250,000 inhabitants of Des Moines, Iowa. Illinois authorities were hoping to reopen a bridge across the Mississippi at Hamilton, 180 miles to the north.
Temporarily at least, the weather too has turned kinder. No serious rain is in the immediate forecast. Yesterday was perfect high summer, a few light clouds scudding across a brilliant blue sky. The temperature was in the bearable upper 80s, a world away from the weekend's humidity-laden 95F onslaught, which had anxious city authorities warning workers at sandbagging stations to take plenty of breaks and drink gallons of water. Please, they vainly implored, no beer.
Just maybe too, appearances of south St Louis to the contrary, the Father of Waters may have reached his apogee. A bloated, dark-brown ocean still surges past the 600ft stainless- steel Arch in downtown St Louis at 7 million gallons a second. But the weather service reckons the Mississippi crested here some time late on Sunday night at almost 47 feet - 17 feet above flood stage and a level unprecedented even in the inundations of 1973. But tell that to the residents of Germania Street, running along the Des Peres river.
Technically the Des Peres is a subsidiary of the Mississippi, five miles south of the business district. Normally it is not, by the remotest stretch of the imagination, one of America's mightier waterways. In fact, at this time of year it usually is not a river at all; just a dried-out bed through a pleasant suburb of mostly one-storey houses, each with their immaculate lawns, tended shrubs and pristine geraniums. But then mid-July 1993 in these parts is anything but normal.
'But where's the river?' I naively asked, looking at a pool of water at the bottom of the gently sloping road. 'That's the bridge over it,' said a police officer. And indeed the bridge was half-submerged by waters up to 50ft deep - no more than a tarmac pontoon across a foul-smelling lake.
The scene was uncanny, as peaceful as an English village pond on a summer's day - except for the workmen slumped in their trucks, exhausted after a night's labours to repair the reparable. For weeks the Des Peres had been rising, driven by rains upstream and by the relentless search of the Mississippi for an outlet, any outlet. For a fortnight Germania Road had feared the worst. On Sunday night the worst arrived.
By dawn some of the levee breaches had been repaired, and steadily chugging pumps were slowly sending the overspill back where it belonged. But no one could be sure. 'These sandbags are soaked through, and they're badly weakened,' a sewage worker said as he surveyed the scene. 'It'll be a month before we're really safe. This could happen again, any time.'
Barring access to Morgan Ford Avenue were a pair of National Guardsmen and a military jeep in battlefield camouflage colours. Here in the orderly, God-fearing Midwest, however, such precautions are superfluous, even faintly absurd. St Louis is famously one of America's nicest cities. This disaster has seen none of the looting which accompanied Hurricane Andrew or the riots in Los Angeles. The crime rate has actually fallen as friends and enemies drop everything in the common struggle against Ol' Man River.
But even though the flood may (for now) have crested, the great metropolis at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri remains a city besieged. To the south are the sodden neighbourhoods around Germania and Des Peres Boulevard. Drive northward on Route 367, and there's another gigantic lake which a week ago was not there. Only treetops, telegraph poles, and roofs poking through 10ft of still, chocolate-coloured waters tell the visitor this was once the fertile St Charles peninsula, now reclaimed by two of the world's great rivers. Yesterday, aptly, the embankment at the township of Defiance succumbed to the raging Missouri.
The material damage is incalculable. Nationally, estimates range up to dollars 10bn (pounds 6.8bn). Around St Louis, the cost of ruined homes, lost businesses and destroyed crops must run into hundreds of millions of dollars. The Mississippi is expected to stay at around the 46ft mark for a few days yet, and thereafter recede only slowly, especially if more heavy rains fall upstream. But sooner or later the clean- up, the dirtiest job of all, will begin.
But spirits are remarkably unbroken. Shattered lives will one day restart, and this corner of the Midwest will revert to its benign and bounteous self. Like many others, one old lady who lost her home to the river had no flood insurance. But the true voice of America's patient, decent heartlands is unmistakable: 'I'll see what's left and just start over.'
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